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Violence on Stage

Healing or Titillating?

In the same week of yet another mass shooting, I saw a couple of plays that used a burst of violence as a plot device. One featured a mass shooting. They both disturbed me, as have several other plays recently.

Two actors in traditional Mughal garb in front of a wall
Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph. Photo by Doug Hamilton.

Why would I be uncomfortable watching Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ play Gloria currently running at the Vineyard Theatre, or Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj at the Atlantic Theater Company, or last season’s Punk Rock by Simon Stephens (which also climaxed in a mass shooting) at MCC Theater, or John Pollano’s Small Engine

Repair the season before by the same theatre company? After all, acts of violence are such routine daily occurrences in the TV shows and movies I watch that they barely register; by the end of its run, the critically beloved series The Sopranos had a “body count” (killings shown on screen) of eighty-four, which some might consider low. Besides, violence is a theatrical tradition dating back to the Greek tragedies.

The answers that I’ve come up with are that works on stage are (or should be) different from works on screen, and that much of the violence I’ve been seeing on stage is of a different quality and purpose than existed at the birth of Western theatre.

Theater of War cover
Theater of War book cover.

“We’ve lost touch with the Greek model,” says director Bryan Doerries. “The violence in Greek tragedies is about helping the community come to terms with the violence they’ve experienced, and the violence they’ve perpetuated.” Doerries is the author of a book that will be published this fall entitled The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today. It chronicles his work with his company Outside The Wire presenting plays, primarily those by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, to help specific audiences grapple with trauma, much of it related to violence—soldiers, prison guards, survivors of domestic violence, and of torture. 

Doerries has seen how consistently these mostly inexperienced theatregoers have connected emotionally to these 2,500-year-old plays. The violence in Greek tragedies is a form of therapy and education for the audiences both then and now, Doerries argues, a communal response to suffering. The violence in many of the contemporary American plays I’ve been seeing, by contrast, is intended as a form of entertainment, a thrill ride.

A debate over violence on stage might be framed differently. Is the violence in a play simply titillating, or does it interrogate our relationship with violence?

Clues to the difference are that the violence in the Greek tragedies is most often off-stage, described in monologues, and that the ancient Greek audiences knew the stories in advance; these were something akin to sacred communal rites that the audience and actors relived. Contemporary American plays most often use violence as an opportunity to show off some impressive stagecraft, and as a surprise, a plot twist. The publicists sometimes even issue critics advisories against revealing the violence.

Now, to be fair, the use of violence on stage to boost audience adrenaline is not something new, nor is it necessarily pernicious. Shakespeare begins Romeo and Juliet with a fight between members of the Capulet and Montague clans that, as fight director J. Allen Suddeth has pointed out, “serves to open the play with energy and a bit of spectacle.” However, at the same time, it also sets up the central conflict between the two families. Subsequent acts of violence in the play—Tybalt’s killing of Mercutio and Romeo’s killing of Tybalt in act 3; Romeo’s murder of Juliet’s suitor Paris in act 5—help turn it into a tragedy. One comes away from Romeo and Juliet lamenting the waste and the foolishness of the violence, even if momentarily swept up by the staging of it.

Now, to be fair, the use of violence on stage to boost audience adrenaline is not something new, nor is it necessarily pernicious.

The argument over the depiction of violence these days most often plays out in debates over video games: Do they perpetuate violence outside their virtual worlds, or, by providing an outlet for aggression and release, lessen it?

A debate over violence on stage might be framed differently. Is the violence in a play simply titillating, or does it interrogate our relationship with violence? “If you are going to put a mass shooting on stage,” Doerries believes, “you better be doing both.”

Two actors arguing
Jennifer Kim and Ryan Spahn in Gloria. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It’s a question worth asking of plays like Guards at the Taj and Gloria. (What follows contains what would be considered spoilers for two shows that are still running.)

Guards at the Taj is a two-character play that begins the night in 1648 before the Taj Mahal will be unveiled to the public. Rajiv Joseph (who is best known for Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo, which was produced on Broadway starring Robin Williams) tells the story of two imperial guards standing watch, who are largely comic figures thrust into an existential dilemma—think Laurel in Hardy in Waiting for Godot. But instead of any uncertain, dreaded fate, they face a concrete and bloody task: The emperor orders them to chop off the hands of all 20,000 artisans who built the Taj Mahal, on the insane reasoning that this will assure that it will remain the most beautiful structure ever built. So, in the second scene, we see them dazed and despairing in a cave with a deep pool of bloody water, having just finished their chopping.

Perhaps Joseph is exploring some deep themes; he does seem to be suggesting that beauty and brutality are often paired. But the violence discourages us from engaging, for two reasons. First, this never happened; it’s a fabrication not based on history. Second, it doesn’t even feel real; it’s so over-the-top as to approach cartoonish. It’s hard to call the effect titillating, but there is a touch of surreal comedy to it, calling to mind the plays by Martin McDonagh (such as A Behanding in Spokane) who often uses violence for comedic effect.

Gloria, too, can be seen as a comedy that takes a jolting turn. In the first act of the play, we meet backbiting, frustrated, and defeated editorial staff members in the cubicle-filled office of an unnamed national magazine (Jacob-Jenkins worked for three years for the New Yorker magazine). The central conflict seems to be between Dean and Kendra. Dean arrives late and hung over because he attended a “so so so awful—and sad” housewarming party given by Gloria; even though Gloria has been with the magazine for fifteen years, Dean was one of the few people to attend. (“Because Gloria is the office freak and no one wants to hang with the office freak outside of the office,” Kendra says unkindly.)

As the scene comes to a close, suddenly we hear gunshots, and then we see Gloria shoot her colleagues before killing herself.

In the second act, taking place eight months later, we learn that Gloria shot ten people to death, that both Dean and Kendra survived, and that they each have contracts to write competing books about it, as does a third surviving colleague.

So Gloria is, in part, a cynical look at the corruption of our culture, the commercialization of our traumas. That the incident they are competing to write about is a berserk mass shooting seems to exist primarily to heighten the absurdity of the characters’ competition. It could have worked almost as well if one of their colleagues had suddenly become a big movie star. Violence per se doesn’t feel to be the central investigation of the play.

But Jacob-Jenkins is also subtly exploring our casual attitude towards violence. Before the shooting, a colleague of Gloria’s calls her “an emotional terrorist.” (We realize how lame and meaningless a phrase like that is when she actually terrorizes.) Another character, a fact checker named Lorin, complains about his career at the magazine by saying, “I was supposed to be a lawyer. Someone shoot me.” By the end of Gloria, however, Lorin—a seemingly minor character initially, almost comic relief—becomes something of the conscience of the play. He’s the only survivor we see that isn’t trying to make a buck off of the experience (“why don’t you just make up your own story. Like why do you have to use Gloria’s story?”), and doesn’t need to hype it (“If Gloria worked here…you probably wouldn’t even notice her…”), and—most significantly—reaches out to a co-worker, to try to make a connection, in what feels like part of his process of grieving. 

In this oblique look at grief, the play maintains its intellectual integrity. But will it help any theatregoers with their own grief—their own baffled response to violence?

That’s something that theatre can, and should, do more.

A few days after nine people were shot dead on June 17 at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, a group of New York-based theatre artists who call themselves Willing Participant called a meeting to come up with an “urgent poetic response.” 

“We had a very lively and important discussion, where people were looking for space to question, to heal, to think about how to move forward,” says Niegel Smith, one of the four “ringleaders” of the group, and the new artistic director of The Flea Theater.

Three and a half hours of sometimes angry and vengeful discussion about the Charleston shooting yielded a realization: “A single response is not enough for what happened,” says Smith, who is one of those searching for something longer-term. Over the next few days, Willing Participant is hoping to come up with a series of gatherings “with music and song and dance and conversation and experts involved. They are going to look more like a spiritual ritual—a lot less polished than traditional theatre. But no less theatrical. I agree that theatre should be responding.”

That Smith is involved seems fitting. The Flea, the Off-Off Broadway theatre that he took over last month, has a history of urgent response. Not long after September 11, it produced The Guys, by Ann Nelson, a two-character play about an editor helping a fire captain to prepare the eulogies for the fire fighters who died at the World Trade Center. Featuring a different starry cast every six weeks, The Guys ran for a year, helping the community to deal with a traumatic act of violence without depicting any violence on the stage. 

Jonathan Mandell's NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of every month. Find his previous pieces here.


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I'm "uncomfortable" with the idea that theater must function as "therapy and education" or "by providing an outlet for aggression and release, lessen it..." or that it "better be doing..." anything. Theater, in my view, holds up the mirror and what we see there might be nasty. There's an underlying assumption in the article, and in the hand wringing that permeates much of the discussion, that theater must strive to heal the nastiness or be judged "pernicious." Theater that is disturbing? Hell yes!

You are mischaracterizing the tone of my inquiry as some kind of absolutist decree, taking words out of context. Here is how "pernicious," for example, is used in the article: "...the use of violence on stage to boost audience adrenaline is not something new, nor is it necessarily pernicious." The problem of violence in our society is real. Some of us are asking what part theater can and should play in addressing it.

I was brought to this article b/c of your comments on Rob Onorato's "Shot, Shocked, Saved" post and have been exploring my own artistic response to tragedies ranging from Columbine to San Bernardino and whatever else may be awaiting us in the coming weeks, days, or hours. As I explore what the theater's role should be in educating our audience on the history of violence and sometimes more specifically a mass shooting I come to see it as necessary to face a fear and attempt to understand why these tragedies happen or in the case of Gloria show us what it means to be American and cope with tragedy. Though I agree with Jeff that theater is a mirror and should be whatever it needs to be or whatever an artist decides. I believe that when dealing with something as horrible as a school shooting, theater should be held to a higher standard. The point should not be to merely terrorize the audience but to educate them.

I appreciate your comment, Shaun. I'm not sure you DO agree with Jeff Wolf Zinn, at least the way I understand his comment -- i.e. "disturbing? Hell yes." It's too simplistic to say that theater should be disturbing -- that's a cliche that, like many sayings in the theater, has lost its precise meaning or never had one.

So... while i disagree with the idea that violence on stage must either heal or hurt, myself and a few others were involved in the howlround chat today about this article (see the storify here: https://storify.com/howlrou... and then we continued past the cutoff of the chat and Jonathan asked that I post some of that here for posterity.

The thing we were talking about near the end was whether theater could be a reaction to tragedy (ie the Charleston Shooting) and then whether it should, because those really are two different topics. I wholeheartedly believe that theater can be used to find solace, meaning, understanding, etc in times of tragedy and strife. I don't think it always does, I think that theatre artists like anyone else are capable of missteps. Then we got into the question of should.

@javprojects believes that Theater should wait and reflect, and not patronize/pander. I don't want to misrepresent his views so check out his tweets around 2-3pm on 6/25/15 if you're interested. I raised that theatre has always been reactionary, a commentary on things. Trojan Women was an advisement to the Greeks to not entertain the idea of civil war; Shakespeare's histories are often entrenched in the political goings ons of England at their time of writing; and The Crucible by Miller is a strident attack on McCarthyism. This is how we as theatre artists make a stand and cope and process. We do it by making art, not for commercial reasons but for art's sake and I think that's important. I absolutely believe there are people who should be creating art in this wave of racial tension throughout the country. In fact I know that there are artists doing just that. And I think they should. And not all of it will be good, not all of it will be testaments to the stage kept through the ages, but it will help communities discuss, and feel, and process. And that's what we do this for, right? Not to present answers but to present ideas.